George Bickel: The OTHER Willie Work

George Bickel (1863-1941) was born on this day. Originally from Saginaw, Michigan, Bickel was a circus, burlesque and vaudeville comedian who gained greatest popularity in a trio called “Me, Myself and I”, featuring himself, Harry Watson, Jr. and Ed Lee Wrothe. In 1904, an entire eponymous Broadway show was built around them, followed by another, Tom, Dick and Harry in 1905. Thanks, Anthony Balducci, for turning up this description of their act by George Jean Nathan:

“Bickel was the Dutch comedian, Watson the tramp, and Wrothe the stooge who stood at a distance silently admiring the twain in wide-eyed wonder.  Bickel had a miniature fiddle which he would laboriously tune up for fully ten minutes and. . . instruct his colleagues to give close heed to his imminent display of virtuosity.  He would thereupon play one or two notes on the fiddle, which, to the despair of his friends, would again require another full ten minutes of tuning up.”

When the Marx Brothers broke through with their first Broadway show I’ll Say She Is, 20 years later, Nathan compared them to Watson, Bickel and Wrothe. Wrothe left the act in early 1906 and remained popular in burlesque for another couple of decades. Meanwhile the duo of Bickel and Watson performed together in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1907, 1908 and 1910, as well as the show The Silver Star (1910-11).

The team broke up in 1911, and each appears to have done quite well onstage on his own.  Bickel went on to the Broadway shows Gypsy Love (1911) and (From) Broadway to Paris (1912-1913). Then, starting in 1915 he began appearing in silent comedy shorts with Watson for Bronx-based producer George Kleine In many of these comedies he appears as a character named “Willie Work” (which was also the character name Harold Lloyd had briefly used at the start of his film career).

Bickel’s last silent was in early 1918, and then he returned to the stage, where he had great success for nearly another decade in the shows Follow the Girl (1918), George White’s Scandals (1919, 1920 & 1921 editions), The Good Old Days (1923), Paradise Alley (1924), and The Circus Princess (1927).

With the coming of sound, Bickel returned to film in 1929 and had quite a great run of it in supporting parts for four years. He’s in the Clark and McCullough shorts A King of Cooks, In Holland, and Beneath the Law (all 1929) and actually gets to star in Sound Your A that same year, directed by Henry Lehrman, and backed by Arthur Stone, Marjorie Beebe and Stuart Erwin. In 1930, he’s in Soup to Nuts with Ted Healy and The Three Stooges, then Maybe It’s Love with Joe E. Brown and Joan Bennett. In 1932 he’s in the Lubitsch film Broken Lullaby, and in Dancers in the Dark with Miriam Hopkins and Jack Oakie. Then in 1933, two tantalizing comedy shorts both directed by Harry Edwards: Pop’s Pal with Lloyd Hamilton and Billy Bevan, and Leave it to Dad, in which Bickel himself stars.

At this stage Bickel was 70; it’s reasonable to assume he retired, for he shows no credits through his death in 1941. Bickel’s wife was Beatrice Boston. Billed as Beatrice Bickel, she appeared in the Broadway shows The Merry World (1927) and Artists and Models (1927-1928).